Civil Fights: The canard of 'disproportionate force'

Hamas needs civilian casualties to fuel Palestinian and international anger at Israel.

IDF tank beauty 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
IDF tank beauty 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
International denunciations of Israel came thick and fast this week. The EU's rotating president, Slovenia, condemned the "disproportionate use of force by the Israeli Defense Forces against the Palestinian population in Gaza." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon slammed Israel's "excessive and disproportionate" response to Palestinian rocket attacks. Even the US State Department urged Israel to "exercise caution to avoid the loss of innocent life," which is merely a milder version of the same premise: that Israel is to blame for all Palestinian civilian casualties, either because it uses "disproportionate force" or because it exercises insufficient "caution." Yet media reports on the fighting in Gaza reveal that in fact, the blame frequently lies with Palestinian behavior. Take, for example, an Israeli air strike that killed two Palestinian teenagers last Wednesday. According to The New York Times, "witnesses in Gaza told the Palestinian news media that the civilians were hit while standing at a launching site watching Hamas militants firing rockets." There can be no more justified military activity than targeting terrorists in the very act of firing rockets at civilians. If that is "disproportionate," all military activity is. Moreover, since Hamas eschews uniforms, the IDF has no way to distinguish rocket crews from civilians who are cheering them on. Thus any civilian who rubbernecks at a rocket launch is clearly and deliberately putting himself in danger - which in itself should absolve Israel of responsibility. BUT MORE importantly, for that very reason, most armed forces do not allow civilians in firing zones. The IDF, for instance, generally declares active combat areas "closed military zones" from which Israeli civilians are legally barred, and it enforces such orders. Other Western armies do the same. But Hamas needs civilian casualties to fuel Palestinian and international anger at Israel. So rather than barring civilians from its launch zones, it welcomes them. And if they do not volunteer for the victim's role, it co-opts them - as happened last weekend: "Palestinian gunmen took up positions in homes while the civilians were still inside," Haaretz reported. Firing back at people who are shooting at you is also clearly legitimate military activity; no law of war obligates soldiers to let themselves be mown down without a fight just because there are civilians nearby. Moreover, soldiers have no way of knowing whether the civilians have fled or are still inside a house; all they can be certain of is the presence of gunmen. Under such circumstances, civilian casualties are inevitable. But those casualties are not caused by "disproportionate force" or insufficient "caution"; they are the direct result of Hamas's decision to use civilian homes, with the people still inside, as bases for targeting Israeli soldiers. Moreover, civilians are not always innocent. Those whose homes were invaded by Hamas were presumably unwilling hostages. But some Palestinians voluntarily serve as "human shields" for terrorists - and by actively aiding and abetting terror, they turn themselves into combatants. In one widely publicized case in November 2006, for instance, the IDF, seeking to avoid civilian casualties, announced two planned air strikes 30 minutes in advance to enable civilians to leave. Instead, Hamas used the loudspeakers of local mosques to urge civilians to flood the area and serve as human shields. Hundreds did so, and the IDF - precisely because Israel tries to avoid civilian casualties - consequently aborted the strikes. Yet these civilians were hardly "innocent": They deliberately intervened in an armed conflict on the terrorists' behalf. What is most noteworthy about such incidents, however, is what they say about the Palestinian claim - mindlessly parroted by the international community - that the IDF fires indiscriminately, without regard for civilians. In fact, Hamas summoned civilian reinforcements precisely because it knew a civilian presence would prevent the air strikes. And the civilians came for the same reason - not because they sought death, but because they knew the IDF would not shoot them. IN ANOTHER incident that same month, hundreds of Palestinian women purposely entered a combat zone to shield gunmen besieged by IDF soldiers. Again, they were deliberately abetting combatants. And again, they knew they could do so safely, because the IDF would not shoot them. And indeed, the soldiers held their fire as the wanted men escaped by mingling with the crowd. In July 2006, The New York Times described another Gaza battle as follows: "[Israeli] soldiers fired at groups of armed Palestinians who fought in the streets, sometimes surrounded by curious and excited children." Why any parent would let his children outside during a gunfight is a mystery. But unless these parents were deliberately sacrificing their children for propaganda purposes, such behavior demonstrates a truly extraordinary faith in the IDF's efforts to avoid harming civilians. Contrast this with Palestinians' behavior when the combatants are not Israelis. During last May's Hamas-Fatah infighting, for instance, the Times reported: "The streets of Gaza City were empty except for the gunmen, with shops shuttered and residents remaining indoors, usually in interior rooms farthest from the windows." No "curious and excited" children surrounding the gunmen in these battles: Gazan parents who trusted the IDF with their children's lives evidently placed no similar reliance on Palestinian forces. THE MEDIA reports above, and numerous others like them, make three things clear: (1) Palestinians know full well that Israel strives to avoid civilian casualties; indeed, as their behavior demonstrates, they count on this. (2) Palestinian civilians frequently deliberately put themselves in the line of fire - either to help the combatants, or, like those "excited children," merely to cheer them on. (3) Palestinian terror groups deliberately foster casualties among their own civilians: Not only do they not discourage civilians from entering combat zones; they force them to do so - for instance, by invading civilian homes - when there are no volunteers. In short, Palestinian civilian casualties usually result not from "disproportionate force" or "insufficient caution" by the IDF, but from Palestinian behavior, on the part of both civilians and terrorists. But of course, realizing this would require actually reading reports of the fighting. It is much easier just to skim the headlines and issue stock condemnations of Israel.